Nobody could ever make the assumption that being a professional athlete is easy. And that notion is especially true in the world of hockey.
The road from lacing up your first pair of skates and heading out to the local pond to play some pick-up with your friends to the National Hockey League, the journey is filled with ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and many people contribute along the way to any success that is found.
New York Islanders center Casey Cizikas is no stranger to the aforementioned road. Born in Toronto, Ontario on February 27, 1991, the 22-year-old has found his place on Long Island and is proving to be a valuable core member of the team, exhibiting a much-needed dose of grit, toughness, and determination—a mantra that resounds throughout the entire team locker room.
The people who shape these young players’ lives, instilling in them the values and mental fortitude to succeed may be many, but it always comes back to home and their first coach at the junior level:
"The biggest influence in my life has to be my parents. They were the ones getting up at 5am to take me to house hockey when I was 3 years old. They have been behind me, supporting me my entire life and I owe everything to them. Also, my minor league coach, Cosmo Nardone (MississaugaA Reps Hockey Club). He gave me a chance, playing AAA with him and he brought me up like one of his own and taught me a lot. Hockey has been a crazy ride, I have gotten to witness and experience a lot with under 17s, under 18s, getting to play in the world juniors. I’ve never once expected anything to come close to that, and I am so grateful for it all."
When Cizikas was drafted by the Mississauga St. Michaels Majors with the first selection, third overall in the 2007 OHL priority selection draft, he came with a different game than what you now see on the Island. An accomplished scorer, Cizikas finished 10th in rookie scoring, notching 41 points in 62 games.
2009, bore witness to his dream unfolding as Casey Cizikas was selected with the 92nd overall pick in the 4th round by the New York Islanders. Two more years would bring a close to his career in the OHL before moving to Connecticut to play with the Sound Tigers, not before collecting 248 points in 289 games in the process.
But being selected to a National Hockey League team and actually making it all the way up the ladder to the actual squad always means making quick and profound along the way. The NHL style of play is so much faster and physical that the stubborn who are slow or defiant to conform often get left behind. Cizikas would have some great influences along the way that would make ensure that wouldn’t happen:
"It started my first year in junior. My coach, Dave Cameron, who is now with the Ottawa Senators, told me I am not going to be that 30 or 40 goal scorer in the NHL. He said he wants me to be that two-way center that the team can rely on, to put out there with 30 seconds left in the game to win that faceoff and go against the top lines. I took that to heart and that was the type of player I wanted to be. We worked at it for 4 years and he pushed me and taught me a lot. It got me ready for the position I am in now and the role I have to play to be successful."
Since becoming a part of the Islander rebuild, Casey Cizikas has come to typify a style that management, coaches and fans alike respect and admire. Always a tireless worker on and off the ice, great in the locker room and always willing to sacrifice for the team, “Zeeker” does whatever necessary to inject energy into the team when they most need a jump, whether that calls for blocking a shot or throwing a big hit.
Typically paired with fellow grinders Matt Martin and Colin McDonald, the trio have come to define blue-collar hockey: working hard, hustling on each shift, while forcing opponents to remember their name when heading back to the bench.
Islanders fans have become accustomed to seeing head coach Jack Capuano insert the 4th line on the ice when an influx of adrenaline is needed. And it typically works. Cizikas was asked to summarize his line in an adjective and his answer was, obviously, more than appropriate and even more accurate:
"Gritty. We are not scared to get in the corners or in front of the net. We are not afraid to lay the body, even though some guys might be six inches taller than me . We work extremely hard out there and our number one motto before each game is we will not be outworked out there. We take pride in that and something we try to accomplish every night."
The most underrated trait of a professional hockey player is the mental aspect needed each game to not only perform your best for the team, but also comprehend the responsibilities required on each shift. After the Islanders lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the NHL playoffs last season—a series many thought they could have and should have won—the focus quickly shifted to accomplishments and not deficiencies.
Every team endures a learning curve and experience plays a critical role in future success, both individually and collectively. This was the first playoff appearance for many in the locker room and that fact was not lost on Casey:
"It was heartbreaking when we lost that series, but the way we started the season, with the 5 home losses in a row, guys started to realize what it takes to win games. Everyone started buying in, you saw Johnny starting to hit, you saw Grabs, Okie, Frans, Mouls….Getting into those dirty areas, that is what made us successful and that is what everyone now realizes here. That is what our team identity is going to be."
Some players in the league today will, unfortunately, put personal goals before those of the team. Special clauses now being written into contracts provide bonuses for just about everything, ranging from goals to all-star appearances to awards won at the end of the season. The Islanders and Cizikas were never about that. The coaching staff has fostered a close-knit locker room where players play for each other and the crest of the front rather than the name on the back of the jersey. Nobody is more an example of the organizational philosophy than the 3rd and 4th liners of whom the Islanders rely so much on each game:
"My personal goals are to earn the trust of the coaching staff to play against the other teams top lines and do whatever it takes to help the team win. As far as points go, that does not bother me. I have never worried about that. In my head, if you work hard, good things are going to happen. If you work in the defensive zone, offensive zone opportunities will happen."
With the youngsters in Bridgeport on the rise and looking for permanent NHL jobs, it becomes that much more important for the Islanders on the 2013 roster to work much more diligently during this year’s training camp. Capuano is never one to just gift a role to a player, but rather imposing the will to earn one’s keep.
Cizikas is no stranger to any of it. Going into only his 2nd full season, Casey Cizikas acknowledges that nothing is a given, nothing is taken for granted, and his status on the team is not secure unless he makes it so. This kind of work ethic separates men from boys, players from prospects:
"Nothing comes easy. I think, especially the position I am in right now, you got Nelly, Stromer, Sundstrom. There are so many of us in such a close age range that can all play center. I just have to keep working hard, I have to do whatever I can to solidify my spot. Even in practices and games, I need to work ten times harder than everyone else and that is only going to make us better as a team."
Coming off a summer in which he got to vacation with linemate Matt Martin and see all his favorite artists in concert, that is not all Cizikas did during his time off. Joining the same gym that captain John Tavares attends, he made a concerted effort to get stronger, more agile and quicker in anticipation for the new season.
Those are the adjectives I can best use to not only sum up the New York Islanders hockey club, but Casey Cizikas in particular. It is a team that all Islanders fans can be proud of. And it’s an organization quickly ascending up the National Hockey League ladder, one that is built to not just be successful one year, but for many years to come.
Special thanks to Casey Cizikas for sitting down with Eyes On Isles for this exclusive interview. Also to the New York Islanders public relations staff for their continued support and hard work.